Employers frustrated with their employees' lack of communication during FMLA leave have found a friend in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In what must be described as a solid win for employers, the appellate court (which covers IL, IN and WI) affirmed the dismissal of a former employee's Family and Medical Leave Act claim against the company that fired her after she failed to provide proper notice under the company's policies for an extension of leave. Brown v. Automotive Components Holdings, LLC, and Ford Motor Co.

The Facts

Letecia Brown, a Ford assembly-line worker, provided the Company medical certification from her primary-care physician on August 21 indicating that she was unable to work until August 29 as a result of "stress." Also on August 21, Brown scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist for August 29, the next available date. In the meantime, she asked her primary care physician to pass this information to her employer. Her doctor failed to do so, and Brown made a fatal mistake -- she never followed up with Ford to ensure that a leave extension had been requested and granted.

In the meantime, Brown claimed to have contacted Ford on August 30 to inform the Company that she now would be out until September 16. Ford had no record of this call and sent her certified mail (per Ford's policy) notifying her that she had five days to return to work or provide proper verification of her illness or else she would be fired. Although Brown received notice of the certified mailing, she never picked up the letter, which was waiting for her at the post office. On September 11, when she failed to report to work or provide documentation supporting her need for continued leave, Brown was terminated for failing to follow Ford's procedures for seeking an extension of her initial FMLA leave. Later that same day, Brown's psychiatrist faxed a leave extension request to Ford. By this time, it was too late.

The Lawsuit

Brown filed suit, claiming that Ford interfered with her FMLA rights. The Court, interpreting pre-2009 FMLA regulations, upheld summary judgment in favor of Ford for two reasons: 1) an employee who seeks extension of FMLA leave must notify the employer within two working days of learning the need for the extension, and not within two days of the expiration of the initial leave; 2) here, Brown failed to follow Ford's usual and customary policies for reporting absences and seeking leave. Notably, she knew as of August 21 that she would have an appointment with a specialist on August 29, one day after her current FMLA leave was set to expire. Consequently, she could not establish any extenuating circumstances that made timely notice impracticable.

Insights for Employers

This is an excellent decision for employers, but at least for me, a bit of a surprise. Just when we have become accustomed to courts taking a liberal intepretation of employee "notice" of the need for FMLA leave, the Seventh Circuit lays down the law to employees: follow your employer's usual and customary policies for reporting the need for leave or be prepared to suffer the consequences

Clearly, once an employee takes FMLA leave, the employee bears the burden of notifying the employer of the need to extend the FMLA leave. Therefore, employers that consistently apply procedures regarding leave requests and extensions have greater flexibility when it comes to addressing employees who fail to return from scheduled medical leaves of absence.

Employers should use the Brown decision as an opportunity to establish (or revise) clear personnel policies governing leave requests and extensions. In doing so, it will save you a ton of grief -- and money.